B B Alston | 'It seemed like one of those careers that was so far beyond anything I could do'

B B Alston | 'It seemed like one of those careers that was so far beyond anything I could do'

In October 2018, B B Alston was waiting for an interview for a temp job when he spotted the #DVPit contest on Twitter, a hashtag inviting aspiring authors from marginalised backgrounds to pitch their ideas to literary agents. He had a middle-grade fantasy manuscript about an inner-city black girl who competes for a place at the top-secret Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, but had all but given up on it, and was planning instead to go to medical school.

“It’s funny,” he recalls, talking to me on the phone from his home in South Carolina, “I went back and forth on whether to send that tweet so many times.” But he did send it, and quickly attracted the attention of The Bent Agency’s Gemma Cooper. “Everything kind of went off from there,” he laughs, clearly still amazed by the chain of events that followed. Alston and Cooper worked on the manuscript for three months before it was sent out on submission. The response was instant. Cooper sold Amari and the Night Brothers into nine territories before she had arrived at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where it was swiftly christened the “book of the fair”. More than 25 publishing deals have now been signed, and a fierce bidding war saw Universal Pictures option film rights. “It felt like I was in a book myself,” says Alston. “You go from so many years of ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’ to all these deals.”

Egmont won a seven-publisher auction for UK rights and will publish Amari and the Night Brothers in January, with a dazzling cover and chapter headers illustrated by Brittany Jackson. The book’s heroine is Amari Peters, a 13-year-old black girl who lives in the Rosewood low-income housing projects. She idolises her older brother Quinton, who has mysteriously disappeared. When she finds a briefcase containing a nomination for a summer try-out at the Bureau for Supernatural Affairs, Amari is certain it will lead her to the truth about Quinton’s whereabouts—if only she can get her head around the fact that supernatural creatures, myths and legends are all real.

Just as deadly as any monsters are the elite children she is competing against, including the uber-rich Van Helsing twins. “She’s up against kids who have known about the supernatural world for their whole lives, some of the wealthiest kids in America,” Alston explains. Themes of privilege and otherness are deftly wrapped up in a hugely energetic and entertaining fantasy adventure. The worldbuilding is a treat (magical gadgets, sentient lifts, a weredragon roommate), the dialogue pops, and it’s genuinely funny.

Plot twists
It’s the stuff of publishing fairytales but Alston is far from being an overnight success story. He describes himself as a “military brat”, moving around as a child as a result of his father’s job, until a move to South Carolina with his mother when he was 10, shortly after his parents separated. Then his mother became seriously ill with Guillain-Barré syndrome. “These were really lean times for us,” he explains, “and those experiences are where I drew Amari from.”

Books offered important escapism; his reading inspirations ranged from Maurice Sendak to Beverly Cleary and Star Wars books. “I was always the kid with the super overactive imagination,” he remembers, writ- ing initially for his own entertainment and later penning horror stories for his classmates. Becoming a professional writer, however, was barely on his radar. “It seemed like one of those careers that was so far beyond anything I could do.” During high school, Alston lost touch with his creative side, but a renewed love of books in his twenties inspired him to start writing again, eventually sending out manuscripts and querying agents. At the point of that pivotal tweet, “I had beentrying to become an author for quite a few years, and it just wasn’t happening for me.”

Amari and the Nightbrothers originated from a simple but powerful idea: “What if a kid like me got to go to a Hogwarts, or a Camp Half-Blood, or a Narnia?” The character of Amari popped into Alston’s head early on, fully formed with her brown skin and afro, but it took courage to put her centre stage in a world where the heroes were always white children. “I had never read a fantasy kids’ book with a black main character. Would anyone want to publish this? Or read it? I chickened out,” he confesses, and wrote his protagonist as a wise-cracking white kid, the type he had read a hundred times before. In the foreword to the proof copy, he writes: “I’m sad to say that some time in my 30-plus years of living, I’d come to believe there are some adventures that people like me don’t get to have.”

Returning to Amari
The manuscript, however, kept on stalling. “When I changed it to a white kid, I found that a lot of the things I wanted to say were gone.” Amari’s voice was forever in his head, reminding him that this was her story. Eventually he gave in. “I went back to Amari and everything flowed. I was so used to taking parts of myself out of the book that it was thrilling and freeing to leave those things in.” Amari is a fabulously inspirational character and one who feels long overdue. She’s smart and loyal, stubborn and complex, and her identity as a poor black girl is integral to the narrative.

Actor Marsai Martin, who is set to star as Amari in the film adaptation, shared the cover reveal on her Instagram, praising the project for enabling young black girls to see themselves and “not just putting a black person on the poster and calling it diverse”. Alston’s agent Cooper agrees that this authenticity is a key reason for the book’s success. “Amari is so real. B B’s twist on the ‘chosen one’ set up, with Amari battling prejudice in both the real world and the magical world, makes the book so distinctive.” Alston is a born children’s writer, passionate about the sense of wonder that reading brings. “Kids aren’t set in their way yet, they’re more open to learning. There’s a lot of magic to being a kid; the world is still full of possibilities.”

The past two years have been a whirlwind for him, and all of this before the book is even published. He is now a full-time writer, juggling the “hectic and chaotic” world of publishing, which might mean working on the second book of the trilogy, advising scriptwriters on elements of his worldbuilding, or planning Zoom events for schools. “Never in a million years would I have imagined this would happen.”

Book extract 
The chief reaches into her suit jacket and pulls out a tiny wooden case. She tilts it open and I peek inside. The round badge looks a lot like a medal without the ribbon—it’s the size of my palm and twinkles in its case like a tiny star.

It’s the most beautiful, most wonderful thing I’ve ever owned. It’s also the badge my perfect brother received, and all those accomplished Bureau members before him. I don’t deserve it.

Still, I take the case and everyone claps. Even with my doubts, I smile at the attention. It doesn’t feel real – like it’s happening to someone else.

Now it’s my turn to touch the Crystal Ball. I step past Chief Crowe and frown. I’m suddenly nervous at the prospect of revealing something about myself in front of all these people. What if my supernatural ability turns out to be something disappointing like superhuman knitting? I was really good at it when I was little. The truth is, I don’t even know myself well enough to guess what it might choose.

But everyone’s waiting.

Reluctantly, I place my hand on the Crystal Ball . . .